Report looks at reducing dental mercury pollution

A coalition of groups recently released a report in each of the state capitals of New England, grading the states on their efforts to reduce dental mercury pollution.

The report's number one recommendation is that dentists reduce their use of mercury fillings in consideration of environmental impacts. The report recommended state actions to require that:

  • dentists reduce mercury releases and notify patients about hazards of mercury fillings and alternatives;
  • dental insurance policies provide equal coverage for alternative fillings in state contracts; and,
  • prior to cremation, steps be taken to reduce the mercury emitted into the environment from fillings, since those releases are projected to double in 20 years.

"In the short term, if the use of mercury fillings were drastically reduced, within a decade or so dental mercury releases would be half what they are now," said Michael Bender, primary author of the report, and director of the Montpelier, Vt.-based Mercury Policy Project. "Within 15 years they would be minimal."

Of the mercury currently used in all products in the United States, EPA estimates that mercury fillings (an "amalgam" of mercury and other metals) comprises 55 percent of the total -- or over 1,000 tons of mercury residing in the mouths of Americans today nationwide. If current trends continue, this mercury will be released into the environment over the next 10 to 15 years as those fillings age and are replaced, according to the report's authors.

The groups releasing the report, including the National Wildlife Federation, Health Care Without Harm, Clean Water Action, Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Mercury Policy Project, gave higher grades to Maine ("B"), Connecticut ("B"), Massachusetts ("B") and Rhode Island ("C-") for promoting use of separators for mercury filling material (amalgam) by dentists to reduce pollution. Lower grades were given to New Hampshire ("D-plus") and Vermont ("D") primarily due to the small number of dentists with amalgam separators.

"For as little as $37 per month, a dentist could prevent over 95 percent of his or her office's mercury from going down the drain through employing best management practices and using amalgam separators," said Michael Bender, the report's primary author and director of the Mercury Policy Project. "Unfortunately, even though dentists are the number one contributor of mercury to wastewater and the third largest mercury user in the United States, the American Dental Association still opposes installation of amalgam separators."

Yet an increasing number of state and national dental associations support amalgam separators. A case in point is in Vermont, where the state dental society has now committed to supporting amalgam separator mandates over a voluntary approach.

"It seems clear from the science that amalgam separators do an excellent job at reducing amalgam in wastewater significantly. While no one likes to have mandates put on them, it seems clear to us that we will achieve a much higher level of compliance with mandated separators than a voluntary approach," said Daniel Ferraris, DMS, and past president of the Vermont Dental Society, in written testimony recently provided to a Vermont legislative committee.

Also, a national dental society hailed the report's findings. "Even though an increasing number of dentists no longer use mercury, they need to use amalgam separators because they are still removing mercury," said Richard J. Chanin, DMD, president, International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology. "Yet the best way to reduce dental mercury pollution in the future is not to use mercury in the first place."

An estimated 14 percent of all mercury used in the United States today is for dental fillings, according to the report. Current dental practices result in significant quantities of mercury being released down the drain, in the trash, in biomedical waste and from crematories.

The report, "Taking a Bite Out of Mercury Pollution: The 2005 Report Card on Dental Mercury Use and Release Reduction," also reveals new findings that mercury emissions from cremation are expected to more than double over the next 20 years. This is due to growing number of amalgam retained in people when they die, and increases in cremations. The full report on New England states is available at:

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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